“You said we were last since 2006?”
That was new Penn baseball head coach John Yurkow’s incredulous reaction when I informed him that the Quakers rank last among Ivies in league play since 2006, the year that John Cole took over the program.
So when Cole was let go in May, it shouldn’t have come as much of a shock. What’s a little more peculiar is that Senior Associate Athletic Director Tony Vecchione went with Yurkow as Cole’s successor. After all, if Cole didn’t work out, why replace him with his right-hand man?
Yurkow played for four years for Cole at Rowan and had coached under him since 2007 at Penn, where there has been a lot of underachieving the last few seasons.
Penn has had 11 first-team All-Ivy players since 2010 and the Quakers have finished in the top three among Ivies in batting five of the last six seasons, ranking first in 2009 and 2010. Somehow, even with impressive talent surrounding leaders like 2010 Ivy League Player of the Year Tom Grandieri, 2011 Ivy League Pitcher of the Year Paul Cusick and 2013 Ivy batting leader Ryan Deitrich, Penn’s conference record the last eight seasons is just 65-94-1 (.405).
“It’s somewhat confusing because we’ve played better against scholarship schools than we have in Ivy games,” Yurkow told me after I assured him that Penn has been the Ivy bottom-dweller since the start of the Cole era. “That’s kind of the head scratcher. For people who know baseball and college athletics, they go, ‘Well how does that happen?’ I don’t know if I have the answer to that, but from the outside looking in, I think people understand that there’s enough talent there that it shouldn’t be that hard to get that corrected.”
And he’s exactly right. Sure, Penn has struggled mightily in Ivy play in recent years, but in nonconference competition, the Quakers have held their own against scholarship schools more so than other Ivies, even with similar strengths of schedule as their conference counterparts. Penn’s overall record under Cole was 143-179-1, good for the second-best winning percentage in the conference while he was head coach. The Quakers’ relative success against scholarship schools means that at least Yurkow isn’t inheriting a disaster.
“I really like the makeup of the team as it is, and that was one of the reasons I was interested in the position in the first place,” Yurkow said. “I think one of the things you have to look at is, usually when there’s a coaching change, it’s a really bad situation. And what’s unique about this is it’s not a bad situation … [I]t’s kind of a refreshing feeling to know that we have good players and we can compete for a championship right away.”
Indeed, the Quakers had just three seniors on their entire roster last year, so coach and team should already be comfortable with each other. And there’s real talent on board too, a plus that can be traced back to Yurkow, who since becoming recruiting coordinator in 2008 has brought the majority of all those first-team All-Ivy players to Penn.
“He’s a tireless recruiter, and he’s recruited probably most of the players that are on the team right now and most of the players that are coming in this year,” Vecchione noted.
As the Quakers’ hitting instructor, Yurkow can also claim credit for developing successful batters like Deitrich and facilitating Penn’s batting success the last few years.
And it’s Deitrich who identified what Yurkow’s greatest coaching asset will have to be — positivity.
“He’s one of those guys that gets to know you on a personal level off the field as well as on the field so he knows what it takes to motivate each individual player and he’s willing to stay there extra hours and do the extra work,” Deitrich said. “Not that coach Cole didn’t do that, but I think Yurkow lends himself to being more personable with each individual player.”
There were always rumblings from around the program that many of Cole’s players were fed up with his authoritative approach, tired of his premium on perfection at all costs in a sport where inevitably, as Yurkow told me, “you fail a lot.” That so many current and former players and parents were happy to see Cole go speaks to how negative the energy he created for his program was.
But Yurkow, in stark contrast, has always been a bona fide player’s coach. Former Penn director of baseball operations Marco Menna told me that Yurkow was “the guy keeping it fun at times.”
“Coach Yurkow had a better grasp of how to connect with the players on the team [than Cole did],” Menna said.
“There needs to be an atmosphere and one that I really want to create where I want guys to be able to play free and easy and not worry about negative thoughts and failure,” Yurkow said. “I think if you do that, you’ll have a more aggressive team, a more confident team, and I think that’s gonna lead to wins.”
Exactly. It remains to be seen how Yurkow will handle his players now that they’re in his program rather than someone else’s, but his hire has to be considered a major step in the right direction. But with all the talent and experience he’s accumulated here, it shouldn’t take very long for Ivy success to follow. Year One will tell the tale.
Mike Tony is a rising senior English and History major from Uniontown, Pa. He is Senior Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and can be reached at email@example.com.